Know Your Rights: the campaigns of Bob and Roberta Smith

James B reviews the latest exhibition of Bob and Roberta Smith, finding a powerful defence of art as a human right, source of self-empowerment and tool of protest. The show until January 31 in Walthamstow’s William Morris Gallery.

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The exhibition ‘Art is your Human Right’ at the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, East London, documents artist and educator Bob and Roberta Smith’s many initiatives to defend the arts from attempts to diminish the role they play in public life. The centerpiece of the exhibition records his five-year campaign to oppose the attacks on creative subjects in our schools and colleges by the Coalition and latterly the Tory government.

Bob and Roberta Smith is the working name of Patrick Brill. He is perhaps best known for his piece Make Art Not War in the Tate collection. In 2010, coinciding with the students’ demonstrations against tuition fees, Bob and Roberta described the parallel cuts to the Arts Council, local authorities and museums as “an unprecedented war on culture”.

Bob and Roberta responded to the then Education Secretary Michael Gove’s 2011 review of the National Curriculum to focus on ‘essential facts’ and core subjects by creating the angry, stream-of-consciousness Letter to Michael Gove, pictured below, featuring closely packed black text on a stark white background.

Bob and Roberta Smith at William Morris Gallery

Letter to Michael Gove MP, 25 January 2011, courtesy of Bob and Roberta Smith

Many of the pieces on display take the form of placards or wooden panels featuring slogans such as ‘Music makes people powerful’, ‘Art is your human right’, ‘All schools should be art schools’ and ‘Give a child pencils and paper and you teach him or her how to sing’. Using signwriters’ fonts and simulated shadow these deceptively naïve pieces make forceful statements.

The idea of art as a human right is not as utopian as it might appear. The 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights affirms the ‘right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’.

Bob and Roberta Smith at William Morris Gallery

Art Makes People Powerful, 2015, courtesy of Bob and Roberta Smith

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Art is your Human Right, 2015, courtesy of Bob and Roberta Smith

Bob and Roberta has been a tireless advocate for not only retaining but prioritising all forms of art in education. In an interview with The Guardian he said, “The social value of art in schools is that it gives you a way of shaping your world and your way of thinking.”

The campaign against Gove culminated in Bob and Roberta standing against him in the 2015 General Election in the safe Tory seat of Surrey Heath. A video commissioned for the exhibition Art is Your Human Right: why can’t politics be more fun? charts the election campaign. Dressed in his signature bright clothes and Rude Boy’s trilby and driving a van emblazoned with slogans, Bob and Roberta took the fight into Gove’s home territory. His amiability and dedication won him grudging respect from the inscrutable Gove.

More recently Bob and Roberta has been involved in the campaign to save the Sir John Cass faculty of Art, Architecture and Design (CASS) in Aldgate, East London from relocation. A £50m price tag is attached to its prime real estate, close to the City of London. The CASS, part of London Metropolitan University, has been called the ‘Aldgate Bauhaus’ after the famous art and craft school in Germany. The relocation is likely to lead to a significant reduction in both student and staff numbers. The school currently offers the last remaining musical instrument making BSc in the UK.

The exhibition continues until January 31. Bob and Roberta’s campaigns will undoubtedly continue long after.

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